October 6, 2017

Poland’s Ukrainian minority in peril

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Over the history of the last half millennium, Ukrainian Polish relations have been strained, to put it mildly. This included at least three invasions of Ukrainian territory by the Poles and accusations of genocide by both sides. However, in 1991, when the Ukrainians proclaimed a free and independent Ukrainian state, the Republic of Poland was the first country to recognize Ukrainian independence. Poland’s early rapprochement with Ukraine, despite the history, was not all that surprising given its immediate past Soviet Russian domination and a keen memory of what happened in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Independent Ukraine was seen by Poland as a buffer to Russia, a constant source of concern to both. Ukrainian-Polish relations were good, or at the very least workable, in every sphere – including historical issues. And then the Party of Law and Justice came to power in Poland, and everything seemed to change.

Over the last three years the Ukrainian minority in Poland has been persecuted by this right-wing regime. Societal Polish anti-Ukrainian activity has been emboldened, often encouraged and almost invariably condoned by the regime in power.

The southeastern territory of today’s Poland was formerly considered a part of Ukraine and occupied in heavy concentrations until 1947 by Ukrainians. In 1947 the Polish Communist government forcibly relocated that ethnic Ukrainian community to the far reaches of northwestern Poland, territory belonging to Germany prior to World War II. The thrust of this police action, which many have condemned as an attempted genocide of Ukrainians in Poland, was not simply to relocate but to “solve the Ukrainian problem in Poland.” That specific language was used in the secret directive for this action. Ukrainians were to be resettled in non-concentrated communities so that they would cease to exist as an ethic entity.

Following 1989 and the restoration of an independent (non-satellite) democratic Polish Republic, some Ukrainians from northwest Poland returned to their traditional lands. Since 1991 many Ukrainians have reached Poland from Ukraine, legally and illegally. There they exhumed and buried their long fallen civilian ancestors, as well as fallen soldiers of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army that fought the Soviets and the Polish Communists on Polish territory after 1945. Monuments were erected both with and without the consent of the Polish authorities. In fact, some memorials to the Ukrainian deceased were erected at the cost of the Polish government. Most former Ukrainian community property and churches that were taken over by the Polish Communist government in the late 1940s and decreed confiscated in 1949 have remained with their new owners, but singular structures have been returned to the Ukrainian ethnic community.

It is these edifices, buildings, churches, memorials, monuments and gravesites that have been the targets of a recent onslaught by chauvinistic elements of Polish society and sanctioned by the current regime. They have been defaced and/or destroyed. Sanctioning has been manifested in various forms, even by some official brazen affirmative statements, but mostly by a failure to investigate or prosecute. One most recent example involved an attack by alleged Polish hooligans against a religious procession in Przemysl (Peremyshl), a formerly Ukrainian city, to a cemetery with shouts of “Poland is for Poles” by an unruly mob and little or no police protection.

A four-page Polish-language chronology of recent attacks against Ukrainians in Poland was submitted recently by the undersigned to the permanent representative of the Republic of Poland to the United Nations in New York. There has been no response. The document was prepared by the organized Ukrainian community in Poland, the Union of Ukrainians in Poland. This chronology, with footnote substantiation, will be forwarded to the U.N. secretary general, the U.N. Human Rights Council and its high commissioner, as well as the 192 other countries that comprise the U.N. What is being sought is simple compliance with the U.N. Charter and the U.N.’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

The events addressed here are serious not only for the Ukrainian community in Poland, but for the causes of better relations between neighboring states and respect for human and minority rights. The Republic of Poland, and even its current right-wing regime, should know better. One anonymous Polish diplomat told me recently in private: this mistreatment of Ukrainians in Poland is not only immoral, it’s politically stupid. Apparently, they do know better, yet they insist on doing wrong. As a result, the Ukrainian minority in Poland suffers, as do Ukrainian-Polish relations.

Askold S. Lozynskyj is a journalist accredited at the United Nations in New York.

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